Cholera Outbreak Draws Attention to Overcrowded Harare Apartment Complex

This enormous apartment complex has been overcrowded and under-serviced for years, but some people who live there say they don’t plan to move, even after the city closed a portion of the complex due to a cholera outbreak.

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Conditions in Matapi Flats, an apartment complex on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital, are so bad that when cholera broke out in September, the city council temporarily kicked people out of some of the complex’s blocks.

Months later, some of the units in the complex are still closed, residents say.

“As far as I know, some who used to stay there are living with relatives in that area,” says Gerald Chidodo, who’s lived in Matapi Flats his whole life.

City officials say the units are still closed because the plumbing system is dilapidated, creating a health hazard. It hasn’t been fixed because many tenants don’t pay rent, they say.

The closure was just the latest in a years long series of problems at the complex. The flats date to Zimbabwe’s colonial era and were built to house single men traveling to the Harare area for work. Each living area includes one bedroom, but bathrooms and kitchens are communal spaces. Originally designed to hold just one person, each of the nearly 3,000 rooms now houses an average of between eight and 10 people, according to a review by one researcher.

Exact data on the number of people who live in the complex are scarce, but independent researchers estimate that between 24,000 and 30,000 people live at Matapi Hostels now, far more than the estimated 3,000 people who lived there in 1980.

Michael Chideme, a spokesman for the Harare City Council, says the flats are meant to house 5,000 people.

The complex is owned and operated by the government, and there’s been little upkeep over the years. Local news reports show dilapidated structures, unsanitary kitchen facilities and children picking through heaps of trash. A massive fire ripped through a huge section of the flats in mid-2018 and drew more attention to conditions there.

At one point, the city was reported by local media outlets to have locked tenants out of their flats because the they hadn’t paid rent. People who live in the flats confirmed with Global Press Journal that such lockouts had occurred in the past.

Then, when cholera pushed through the city in September, people who lived in Matapi Flats were locked out again.

The buildings aren’t maintained, because people who live there don’t pay rent to the council, Chideme says. Instead, they pay rent to leaseholders who live elsewhere, he says. That money isn’t turned over to the council, he adds.

Now, the council has a plan to relocate everyone who lives in Matapi Flats to more family-friendly units elsewhere, Chideme says.

“We anticipate a bit of resistance, but such is always the case when change is introduced,” he says.

Despite public perception of the flats, many people want to live there, says Reuben Akili, who represents the Combined Harare Residents Association.

“Mbare has become one of the leading markets in Harare,” he says, referring to the neighborhood where Matapi Flats stand. “There is heavy economic activity and money to be made there.”

The area has a major secondhand clothing market in which many local people engage, Akili says. People come from as far as Bulawayo, a city more than 400 kilometers (about 249 miles) away, to buy clothes in Mbare.

Mbare is also close enough to other neighborhoods so that people from Matapi Flats can still walk to work, even if they have jobs outside Mbare, Akili says.

Plus, many people who live in Matapi Flats say they don’t pay rent at all, not even to leaseholders, Akili adds.

Chidodo, who’s lived in Matapi Flats his whole life, says things aren’t as bad as news reports suggest. He says he pays his rent so that his family of five can live together in a tiny apartment.

Some sections are kept much nicer than others, he says.

“I don’t see myself moving,” he says. “Maybe later, but for now, I’m OK where I am.”

Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ, translated interviews from Shona.